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San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama builds huge following

Spurs veterans embrace Wemby Mania; team opponents predict future excellence

SAN ANTONIO – Victor Wembanyama screamed in excitement after he was fouled on a hammering dunk with 4:56 left during his signature moment in an otherwise frustrating debut with the San Antonio Spurs.

In that moment, the Spurs’ sold-out crowd rose to its feet Wednesday night and roared to salute its new 7-foot-3 center in a way they used to for Hall of Famers who starred in their uniform. But after that highlight, there was no storybook ending for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA draft on this historic night. In the most anticipated NBA debut since LeBron James 20 years ago, a foul-plagued Frenchman and the Spurs blew a 12-point lead in a 126-119 season-opening loss to the visiting Dallas Mavericks.

“Lots of emotions for sure. But it would have been perfect with a win,” Wembanyama said.

While the loss dampened the elation of the arrival of “Wemby” to Alamo City, the Spurs and the NBA, there were enough flashes seen. He scored 15 points in 23 minutes to show that this giant unicorn has a storybook future ahead.

“He’s going to be amazing. He already is,” said Mavericks guard Luka Dončić, who scored a game-high 33 points and nailed the game-sealing jumper. “The size, obviously, like everybody talks about. The way he moves for 7-5, 7-6. He moves incredible. He moves like a point guard almost, so it’s pretty amazing to see him translate. He’s going to have a great future and he’s going to be amazing to watch.”

For Wembanyama, however, it wasn’t so amazing to spend more time on the bench than on the court.

The 19-year-old shot 6-of-9 from the field, made three 3-pointers and had 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block and 2 steals. The fouls kept the Le Chesnay, France, native from getting in a rhythm. Other than the foul trouble, however, a positive coach Gregg Popovich thought Wembanyama had a “wonderful outing.”

“One of the toughest things for a player is to get into foul trouble,” Popovich said. “You never get into a rhythm, you’re in and out of the game and that sort of thing. I thought his maturity showed, even at a young age where he came in with the last seven minutes and just played.”

San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (right) looks to pass during the second quarter against the Dallas Mavericks at Frost Bank Center on Oct. 25 in San Antonio.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Since 2000, there have been some highly anticipated NBA debuts. There was China’s 7-6 center Yao Ming by the Houston Rockets in 2002. No one since perhaps Magic Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird with the Boston Celtics in 1979 had more hype for an NBA debut than LeBron James in 2003 for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The athleticism and powerful dunking of 2020 No. 1 pick Zion Williamson captured the attention of the NBA world when he debuted for the New Orleans Pelicans. And then there was the birth of “Wemby.”

The Spurs have had heralded No. 1 picks in their past as well with Basketball Hall of Famers David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Duncan and his fellow Hall of Famers Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were foreigners who brought major international attention to the Spurs. Even so, Popovich said that Wembanyama’s arrival attracted a much higher level of worldwide attention and splash than the Spurs legends.

“It is basically because of social media and the world that we live in, you can figure that out logically,” Popovich recently said in comparing the arrival of Wembanyama to Duncan and Robinson. “They weren’t sliced and diced as much when they came in. Everybody knew who they were. But this guy has had that hype for so long, kind of like LeBron did coming out. I compare more to LeBron than those two guys in that respect.

“I worried about it. And one of my major concerns was to figure out how to protect him or am I going to give him speeches about this, and this is this, and got to look out for this, and all that. I found out very early when I’m talking to him that he’s kind of looking at me [like], ‘Why is this guy telling me all this stuff?’ He already knows it. He’s been through it. He’s got character. He is got a sense of humor. He’s intelligent. He knows how to handle it. So, I’m not worried about it anymore.”

With Popovich unbothered by the attention, Wemby Mania has also taken over San Antonio.

No. 1 Spurs jerseys sold fast like the city’s renowned breakfast tacos once the franchise landed the top pick in the 2023 NBA draft. Spurs fans braved 100-degree heat for several hours before getting the opportunity to chant, “Wemby, Wemby” when Wembanyama arrived at the airport June 23 after being drafted. The traditional Spurs even hired a hype man who speaks French. And on the marquee sign outside of The Ticket Sports Pub it simply reads “Welcome Wembanyama.”

The sign outside The Ticket Sports Pub in San Antonio greets Victor Wembanyama.

Marc J. Spears

Before Wembanyama’s arrival, the Spurs’ future appeared to be in solid hands of budding young stars forward Keldon Johnson and guard Devin Vassell. Johnson averaged a team-best 22 points last season and scored 30 or more points in eight games. Vassell was San Antonio’s second-leading scorer, averaging 18.5 points but missed 44 games last season to a knee injury. The Spurs also had an exciting young defender in forward Jeremy Sochan, who was the first rookie to start for the Spurs on opening night since Duncan in 1997.

Then the Wembanyama bombshell took place, and the spotlight immediately shifted from Johnson, Vassell and Sochan to the big man. While it certainly would be natural to have some jealousy, the Spurs’ team-first reputation and the reality of how big Wemby is and will be quickly put it all in perspective for Johnson, Vassell and Sochan.

“At first I had my guard up,” Johnson said recently. “I didn’t really know what to expect. I had never been around someone [of that] magnitude that had that much hype constantly 24-7. But as things went on, as we played against each other throughout the summer and talked going off the court, it was cool …

“Obviously it’s a lot of spotlight to come with having a player like Vic on the team, who is an amazing player. But that doesn’t change my mindset of wanting to win, wanting to get better each and every day and going out there and competing.”

Vassell said: “Having a player like that who’s a generational of talent, you never know how they’re going to be coming into the locker room. But he’s always been a team-first guy. He’s always just worried about winning and trying to make sure that everybody eats and just winning at the end of the day.”

New Spurs forward Cedi Osman said he realized Wembanyama was a sensation when about 13,200 fans came to a Spurs scrimmage to get their first glimpse of him. As a rookie, Osman played with James during James’ final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2017-18 season.

So, what is the difference between playing with “King James” and “Wemby”?

“Listen, the talent is crazy,” said Osman of Wembanyama. “He’s like, 7-4, but he’s been doing some crazy stuff. I’d just seen a video of Victor over a 92-second stretch” in a preseason game against the Golden State Warriors. “He was blocking shots, passing, dunking, shooting 3s, making 3s. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that.

“Obviously, I played with LeBron. LeBron is in a different spot for me. But I mean, Wemby’s unbelievable. He’s really unbelievable and you can see how he just impresses everybody and people are trying to shoot over him, which I think is really impossible because he had five blocks in the first quarter [against Golden State], which is, to me it’s unbelievable. So, he obviously has a bright future.”

San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (right) celebrates during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on Oct. 25 at the Frost Bank Center in San Antonio.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Wembanyama was the focus when he played for the Paris Metropolitans 92 in France last season. Metropolitans 92 entered the season with one athletic trainer who focused a lot on the 19-year-old. Believing that his teammates weren’t getting what they needed, Wembanyama pushed the club to add another trainer, according to his agent Bouna Ndiaye. He also made a point to work out with his teammates in the weight room regularly.

While Ndiaye acknowledges that Wembanyama has confidence and a healthy ego, he added that he truly cares about his teammates. Even while being in foul trouble in his Spurs debut, Wembanyama stood to cheer his teammates several times from the bench. “It might be frustrating, but always keeping [my] head up is good for my teammates. I can’t show it on the court. We learn every day,” Wembanyama said.

Ndiaye said: “Just last week he was talking to me about how he wanted to be a better leader.”

Sochan noted respectfully that there was now more security than last season because of Wembanyama. There are also many more national television appearances as the Spurs went from three a season ago to 19 this season. The Spurs played in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,947 and a nationally televised audience on ESPN. Along with television appearances, Vassell said, the Spurs are getting much more attention from fans and on social media than before because of Wembanyama.

Vassell hopes that could lead to more opportunities and a share of the spotlight for everyone.

“When you think about the NBA, you think about playing on TV,” Vassell said recently. “You think about playing in front of all these people, all these fans. I’m coming into my fourth year. So, this is the first time where we’re actually on TV all the time and playing in front of people. So that’s exciting for me …

“As long as you’re winning, it brings attention to everybody eats. So, for me, that’s kind of how I’ve always been brought up. Just as long as we’re winning, as long as everybody’s just hooping and playing how you’re supposed to be playing, everybody’s going to benefit.”

Johnson said recently, “All the hype on the outside didn’t really bother us as a team before he came. It’s still our team, but obviously with the celebrity it changes.”

New Dallas Mavericks forward Grant Williams believes the Spurs will truly benefit from the potential greatness of Wembanyama.

The 6-foot-6 forward was successful Wednesday night being physical with Wembanyama and stripping the ball from him. Wembanyama had five turnovers. Williams believes that Wembanyama’s unique athleticism, deep shooting ability and shot blocking at 7-feet-3 will come together to benefit him greatly with more experience and strength over time. Williams also said that learning how Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid plays inside and outside and moves the ball can benefit Wembanyama.

“Give him two years and he will be a major problem,” Williams told Andscape.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.